For three years beginning in 1818 poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, his landlady’s daughter, loved one another; his tubercular death at 25 ended their relationship “on earth.” According to the film, that relationship was chaste, and filled with romantic and sexual longing. Two things curbed it: Keats’s poverty and, later, sickness. Because it had no future, their relationship was denied a full present; and this social reality was antithetical to the Romanticism that Keats, and the feminist self-determination that Brawne, embodied. It assaulted them on all levels, including the personal, intellectual and political.
New Zealand-born writer-director Jane Campion, inspired by a biography of Keats by Andrew Motion that is in the mode of André Maurois’s Ariel, about Shelley, has made an intimate, raw, emotional film. Signaling this is something that Fanny witnesses: John Keats’s overwhelming tenderness toward his brother Tom, who before John falls ill is also dying of tuberculosis. There is something else: mirroring Campion’s love of children is John’s love of Fanny’s young siblings, which adds poignancy to his predicament, at least for us, as it constantly reminds us of the loving father that fate denies Keats’s becoming. The Brawnes’s pet cat, which is freely and lovingly passed around, demonstrates the pure affections that Fanny, her family and John Keats share.
Thematically, this heartrending film dovetails two ideas: the “holiness of the heart’s affections,” which John chides roommate Charles Brown for not appreciating; the unexpected nature of such growing ties. Charles, who had devotedly attended to John, perhaps more possessively than unselfishly lovingly, expresses surprise after John’s death how deeply affected by his friend he now realizes he had been: a stunning revelation.
While certain characters are more or less confined indoors, Campion situates John, Fanny and her siblings in gorgeous rural Nature—powerful images; because Fanny is the protagonist, when John is visiting London on business the camera does not follow him there, and, so, we feel something of the absence of him that is being impressed on Fanny, but we also have especial cause to identify John still with the Nature in which we have seen him. John, moreover, is identified with naturalness, not only by his gracious tolerance, but also by his preference for poetry that is inspired rather than labored upon. It should come as naturally to the author, he tells Fanny, “as leaves to trees.” (I do not feel that this accurately reflects Keats’s own poetry, but he may have indeed seen his relationship to his poetry in that way.) In a wonderful, fleeting passage, without using the term for this, in what is meant after all to be conversation, John explains negative capability to Fanny, which fuses in-the-momentness and openness to experience—something else that identifies John with Nature. And the dresses, including the ones that Fanny designs and sews,* also seem slyly suited to the theme, for they actually look like clothes that the characters we are watching might wear—not an experience we often have at the movies (Janet Patterson designed them and also the production), and one that (in concert with a host of other elements) divests Campion’s film of a “period” description. We come as close as possible to experiencing the action of this film as the present in which the early nineteenth-century characters are living. Campion’s film is that immediate.
The film opens with a closeup of Fanny’s hands at work at her stitching—an activity that the camera will record again. One scene yields to another with the sound carrying over from the preceding scene: cinematic “stitching”! It is a visual “in”-joke that is nonetheless accessible to everyone watching—what a Romantic “joke,” if there were such a thing, would have to be.
Like all Campion’s films, this one is uneven—and perhaps has to be, because something that would sustain the emotional intensity of the best scenes here might be intolerable. The acting is excellent. Perhaps best are Abbie Cornish as Fanny and especially Paul Schneider as Charles, who must navigate a largely unpleasant, infuriating role. Edie Martin is adorable as Fanny’s little sister, Margaret (“Toots”), and Kerry Fox, admirably playing their mother, relates this marvelous movie to Campion’s best piece of work, An Angel at the Table (1989), in which Fox brilliantly plays New Zealand writer Janet Frame.
Ben Whishaw sweetly plays John Keats. Over the closing credits we hear him read Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale. So successful has Whishaw been throughout the film that you think you’re listening to Keats read the poem.
And you are right.
* Mindy Aloff has written me the following:
You know, there’s a detail that none of the reviews I’ve seen have mentioned. Most of them speak of Fanny Brawne as a “fashionista,” but if you look at her clothes for herself, they evolve—from the first one, where the red and white are dramatically sequestered from one another and the cut of the dress is rather fancy, ornamental, to the last, valedictory gown, where the red and white have been beautifully integrated into a lustrous garnet, and the cut of the dress is like something by Worth of Paris. Just a tiny detail, but it made me think of Keats’s own evolution as a poet.
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